Monday, January 14, 2008

Eating animals and the existence of God

Consider the following thesis:
(*) It is permissible to kill an animal primarily for food only in special circumstances such as where other food is not reasonably available, affordable or sufficiently nutritious.
According to (*), there is a presumption against killing animals for food. If (*) is true, then everyday meal situations for middle and upper class people in Western countries are not going to count as "special circumstances"--other nutritional sources are available to us. I shall also take it that if it is impermissible to kill animals for food apart from special circumstances, it is also impermissible to buy parts or wholes of animals killed for food, again apart from special circumstances.

I think (*) is false. I also think that if (*) is false, then theism is probably true. In this post I will do two things. First, I will summarize an argument for (*) by Andrew Tardiff (published in Faith and Philosophy, some time in the 90's, I think). Second, I will show that some theists have a way out of this argument. Third, I will suggest that probably this is the only way out, and hence if (*) is false, then probably theism is true.

Tardiff argues that (*) is true because it is bad to destroy highly organized entities without proportionate reason. Animals, especially higher animals, are highly organized. Our survival would count as a proportionate reason for destroying an animal. But our gustatory preferences do not count as a proportionate reason, nor do the minor inconveniences of preparing nutritious vegetarian meals count. Special circumstances that do not obtain for us in the affluent West these days would be needed to justify eating animals. Tardiff is a Catholic, and neatly harmonizes his view with the Christian tradition which permits eating animals by saying that eating animals is not intrinsically wrong, and indeed was permissible in past centuries where it was more difficult to get adequate nutrition apart from animals. (I am going by memory here, but I think I'm faithful to Andy's paper.)

But there is an answer available. Suppose that non-human animals live for our sake and were made for us to eat. Certainly, it seems natural for us to eat animals, and if God has coordinated all of nature, it would be plausible that he would have made it natural for the animals to be eaten. On such a view, it is a telos of some animals' lives to be food for humans. Such a view is coherent, and there are aspects of the Christian tradition that imply it. Unless one has disproved this kind of a hierarchy of life view, one has not shown that it is wrong to eat meat under ordinary circumstances. (I can't remember what, if anything, the paper says about this sort of an answer.) In fact, on a view like this, not only is there no presumption for vegeterianism, but there is a presumption for eating meat--if it is one of the telê of the life of a deer that it provide humans with food, we have prima facie reason to fulfill that telos.

And I think something like this is the only objection available. For if it is not a telos of a boar to be eaten by humans, then to kill a boar for human food, apart from special circumstances, is to do a harm to the boar--its death is contrary to its telê on this view--without proportionate reason. Thus, unless it is a telos of at least some animals to serve us, even to the point of our eating them, (*) is true. Granted, there are also some consequentialist considerations--maybe there would be fewer individuals of some species if we didn't raise them for food--but these probably aren't going to amount to a good defense of the negation of (*).

Thus, probably, if (*) is false, then it is a telos of some animals to be eaten. But, probably, the only way that the benefit of one species can be the telos of the functioning of another is in cases of reciprocity, e.g., in symbiosis, unless that telos has a source in the plan of some agent who arranged the system. But reciprocity need not hold for humans to be permitted to eat animals under ordinary circumstances. There may be some reciprocity with domestic animals, but I think we should likewise deny (*) in the case of wild animals. It seems implausible that there should be a biologically-mandated telos in deer and boars that they be eaten by humans. Thus, the telos in question has a source outside the biological system.

Moreover, a merely extrinsic telos, e.g., a purpose that an agent has for the entity, will not justify the killing of animals for food. For instance, that we bred some set of animals for food does make the feeding of us be an extrinsic telos of them, but is not itself sufficient to justify our killing them, because an extrinsic telos of an animal does not affect what is good or bad for the animal. (That my parents had some purpose for my life does not constitute it as being good for me to fulfill that purpose, though I may have reasons of gratitude or prudence to fullfill that purpose.) There is no presumption in favor of acting in accordance with an extrinsic telos: I can equally well use a sword for fighting as for a plowshare.

Thus, in order to justify our ordinarily eating animals, their telos to be eaten by us needs to be an intrinsic telos. But the only account available of a non-biological source of intrinsic telê is the account that God, who is the Ground of Being, can determine which essences, and hence which telê, are instantiated.

Thus, probably, if (*) is false, God exists.

Hence, most middle and upper class American atheists should be, for consistency's sake, vegetarian. A number, of course, are.


Mike Almeida said...

Suppose that non-human animals live for our sake and were made for us to eat. Certainly, it seems natural for us to eat animals, and if God has coordinated all of nature, it would be plausible that he would have made it natural for the animals to be eaten.

Isn't is Biblically true that animal consumption began only after the fall? Genesis 1:29, for instance, says something like “I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food”. I actually don't want to trade Bible verses but, if something like that is so, then I should expect that ideally animals are not created for consumption. Indeed, I should think that it is part of good stewardship that we not consume them. But suppose we do anyway. It is in any case true that farming them as we do imposes horrendous hardships on them, and is certainly not part of good stewardship.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yes, it does seem that that was the original arrangement. But the covenant with Noah goes beyond that (Gen 9:3)--there, God gives a further gift to human beings, the gift of the other animals. (Is it in part because Noah saved the animals?)

While Sarna's Genesis commentary says this is a "concession to human weakness", the context here is the dignity of man and God's blessing. Moreover, it seems to me to fit rather well the pattern that when God restores an order that was damaged by our sinfulness, he gives us more than we had prior to the restoration. (O felix culpa!)

The correct point you make, however, that this was not there from the beginning does make one wonder whether one can maintain that the telos of providing us with food is intrinsic to animals, as my post postulates. One could respond, however, that intrinsic telê can come and God by divine fiat (but by the fiat of no one else).

That vegetarianism is not the norm in New Testament times is clear from Peter and Paul, and from Jesus' helping with a miraculous catch of fish, as well as eating a roasted fish himself, all after the Resurrection. Since the moral order is restored by the Resurrection (e.g., by prohibiting divorce and remarriage, which had been a concession to human weakness), consuming animal flesh has to be a part of the moral order.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...

Mike and Alex,

I remember Hugh Ross's Christian RTB site has a case for animal consumption of meat even before the Fall (
8_myths_about_rtb.shtml , section 7). Their interpretation of Gn 1:29 is different. You can search the two linked papers in the section 7 for "1:29".)


A minor but genuine question concerning your reply to Mike. Weren't divorce and remarriage bad (immoral) even before the restoration of moral order by Christ? At least John Paul II's "Theology of the Body" suggests they were. But then it seems that the OT concession to divorce or remarriage is bad, too.

And if it is not bad, how does it differ from this notorious case?: Few years ago, some German specialized Catholic humanitarian offices systematically issued to some of their female clients records which were necessary for legal abortion. This practice was criticised by Vatican and, as I remember, stopped. How did the certificates for abortion differ from the OT divorce certificates?

(No caviling, just fides quaerens intellectum).

Vlastimil Vohánka said...

The RTB case is for animal, and also human, consumption of meat even before the Fall, and for animal death before the Fall, too.

Mike Almeida said...

Alex and Vastimil,

It is difficult to make out the precise position that is defended Biblically. Would it be a higher moral calling to be vegetarian, whereas omnivorism is permissible? I'm not sure. But I don't think any case can be made--Biblically or not--for the absolutely horrendous suffering we impose on animals in factory farms. It's a genuine moral outrage. I'm certain that we, as stewards of these animals, are minimally committed to doing what we can to prevent this suffering. One good way to begin is not to support factory farming by purchasing animal food products.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I don't actually think remarriage was wrong in Old Testament times, and I would be surprised if John Paul II said it was. Remember that even for Christians, divorce from a non-Christian marriage is sometimes permitted by the Pauline privilege. The sacramentality of marriage, or something analogous to it, is needed for indissolubility, it seems.


Inhumane treatment is wrong.

I don't think we have any implication in Scripture that vegetarianism is a higher calling. It may well be that eating meat is a later permission, but it does not follow that it is an inferior way of life. It may, on the contrary, be a special new dignity bestowed on the human race.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


It seems I read into JPII something he did not write, working only from my memory. Mea culpa, sorry for that! I have to look.

Still, what about polygamy OR extramarital sex (e.g., with a slave girl in case the wife was infertile)? Was something of that wrong in OT times? Maybe there is no concession to extramarital sex in OT (but only reporting it), but there seems to be a concession in OT with respect to polygamy.


As for factory farms, I agree entirely.

"there are some uses of animals that should cause Christians significant concern.

One of the great changes in Western economies has been the change from the small family farm to the huge "agribusiness." With this change has come not only increased production and lower food prices, but the treatment of animals as machines and land as a commodity. One area where animal rights activists have done commendable work is in showing the appalling conditions under which most farm animals now live.

Chickens live in battery cages that, on average, allow them only 36 to 48 square inches. This means that two chickens live in less space than a page of paper. Generally four or five chickens share a cage, so that they must almost physically live on top of each other. Does this sound like what Solomon means when he said that "a righteous man cares for the needs of his animal"?

As one other example, pigs too are treated as machines to produce food. The United States Department of Agriculture tells farmers: "If the sow is considered a pig manufacturing unit, then improved management...will result in more pigs weaned per sow per year." This is surely not man acting as a good steward of created beings that belong to God. The decline of any belief in God has been accompanied by a decline in any attempt to treat animals on farms as anything other than "manufacturing units" to be treated in whatever way will cause them to produce the most.

If we truly believe what the Psalmist says, that "The earth is the LORD's and all it contains" (Ps. 24:1), then we must not accept how those who do not believe this have acted. While we are directly given permission in Scripture to eat meat, it might well make a great difference in how animals are treated if Christians choose not to buy from those meat producers who do not tend to their animals as if they really did belong to God."

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


as for polygamy, JPII (Theology of the Body, ch. XXXVff) says polygamy was wrong even in OT times, though (in chs. XXXV) he suggests OT Jews did not realize the wrongness in their conscience.

It seems JPII also thinks extramarital sex was wrong in OT times. And further, in ch. XXXVI, footnote 2, he suggests that Deuteronomium confirmed the institution of concubines (Dt 21:10-14, cf. Ex 21:7-11).

Now there's a problem, at least for biblical inerrancy. You, like me, believe that "everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit" (Dei Verbum, §11). But did not the human author(s) of the mentioned biblical passages assert that it is permissible to promote by way of institutionalization or legalization something wrong? It seems he (they) did. Polygamy or extramarital sex was wrong even in OT times, at least according to JPII; JPII also thinks the passages promote the wrong praxis. If they did assert, then also the Holy Spirit asserts (by Dei Verbum). But it is NOT permissible to promote something wrong that way; this is a premise which, I suppose, is plausible even for you (similarly, it is not permissible to promote abortion or euthanasia by way of its institutionalization).

Where exactly did I entwine?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think we need to distinguish between legalizing and regulating. We should not make illegal everything that is immoral. But we can regulate the immoral actions that we do not make illegal. For instance, the state should not make it illegal for people to break marriage engagements, even in those cases where breaking the engagement is immoral. But there is nothing wrong with the state's regulating the breaking of engagements, for instance by having a law requiring the return of gifts by the party guilty of the breach.

Finnis has an account of what a law does that he applies to the question whether it is permissible to vote for legislation that introduces restrictions on abortion. He thinks that we need to look at the "legal effect" of a law as being of the essence. My memory of the piece is something like this. If previously all abortion was legal, but a new law makes abortion up to 16 weeks legal and abortion after that illegal, then the "legal effect" of the new law is not to make legal abortion up to 16 weeks legal. That was already in place (and on the assumption that what is not legally prohibited is legally permitted would have been in place had there been no law there at all). The legal effect of the law, which is what the law really enacts, is to make abortion past 16 weeks illegal. What matters is legal effect, not wording.

Applying this analysis to various Old Testament legal texts, we see that their legal effect is to make illegal various kinds of concubinage that previously were legal, to prohibit divorce without a proper writ of divorce, and so on. Their legal effect, thus, is to prohibit some of the immoral activity, though not all of it.

It's not completely clear how the inerrancy of Scripture applies in the case of a legal text. Legal proscriptions are not, strictly speaking, assertions, but enactments. Inerrancy applies in the first instance to assertions. Perhaps we can extend the concept of inerrancy analogically to enactments by saying that what is enacted by the sacred writer is enacted by the Holy Spirit. But on the Finnis account of legal effect, what that means is that the Holy Spirit is enacting the change in legal climate, the restrictions on polygamy and concubinage, regardless of the details of the wording. In the case of an assertion, it follows from the fact that the Holy Spirit asserts it that the assertion is true. In the case of an enactment, the analogous conclusion seems to be that the enactment is just. But the restrictions are just, so all is well.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


This is all very helpful. Thank you.

The only small difficulty is that according to JPII (Theology of the Body, ch. XXXV, §4) the "letter"/"wording" of OT laws restricted certain types of infidelity and polygamy, but "fostered the real polygamy", it even "legalized it fully, though indirectly" (I translate from my Czech translation). By "the real polygamy" JPII means having more than one lawful wife.

But as you wrote, "What matters is legal effect, not wording." And also JPII explicitly writes about the "wording"/"letter" of the pertinent OT laws. He seems to focus on the badness of the interepretation only according to the wording; you focus here on the impeccability of the interpretation according to the Spirit. As the biblical adage goes, the letter kills, the Spirit gives life. (Excuse my English.)

Thanks again!

Alexander R Pruss said...

The Italian would need to be consulted (and then the Polish notes on which the Italian is based). I am thinking that the "indirectly" may be important.

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


I've found this.

"If we consider the letter of such legislation, we find that it takes a determined and open stand against adultery, using radical means, including the death penalty (cf. Lv 20:10; Dt 22:22). It does so, however, by effectively supporting polygamy, even fully legalizing it, at least indirectly. Therefore, adultery was opposed only within special limits and within the sphere of definitive premises which make up the essential form of the Old Testament ethos. Adultery is understood above all (and perhaps exclusively) as the violation of man's right of possession regarding each woman who may be his own legal wife (usually, one among many). On the contrary, adultery is not understood as it appears from the point of view of monogamy as established by the Creator. We know now that Christ referred to the "beginning" precisely in regard to this argument (Mt 19:8)."

"Se si prende in considerazione la lettera di tale legislazione, risulta che essa lotta con l'adulterio in modo deciso e senza riguardi, usando mezzi radicali, compresa la pena di morte (cfr. Lev 20,10; Dt 22,22). Lo fa però sostenendo l'effettiva poligamia, anzi legalizzandola pienamente, almeno in modo indiretto. Così dunque l'adulterio è combattuto solo nei limiti determinati e nell'ambito delle premesse definitive, che compongono l'essenziale forma dell'ethos antico-testamentario. Per adulterio vi si intende soprattutto (e forse esclusivamente) l'infrazione del diritto di proprietà dell'uomo nei riguardi di ogni donna che sia la propria moglie legale (di solito: una tra tante); non si intende invece l'adulterio come appare dal punto di vita della monogamia stabilita dal Creatore. Sappiamo, ormai, che Cristo fece riferimento al «principio» proprio riguardo a questo argomento (cfr. Mt 19,8)."

I did not find Polish version online.